Programmed for Innovation

June 24, 2011
Innovation is a desirable property of any information systems (IS) organization in healthcare. All IS organizations would like to have staff who

Innovation is a desirable property of any information systems (IS) organization in healthcare. All IS organizations would like to have staff who routinely have ideas about new ways to apply technology, improve clinical and operational processes and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the IS organization.

Partners HealthCare has a history of information technology innovation. Despite this history, Partners' IS leadership was not convinced that it was doing an adequate job of broadly encouraging and enabling its staff to be creative and consider alternative ways of working. To advance the Partners IS innovation ability, the Innovation Program was created in 2005.

Program vision and objectives

The program's vision was to improve the ability of IS staff to have a more innovative perspective as they addressed the issues and challenges faced in the course of their day-to-day work. To achieve this vision, the program had four components:

· Research, analyze and present an approach to solving complex business problems facing Partners.

· "Experience trips" to organizations and settings that were engaged in innovation.

· Small group discussions with senior Partners leadership about innovation and the challenges facing Partners.

· Senior IS leaders (the four authors) who would serve as mentors to the program participants

Business problems

The students were asked to "solve" a major business issue facing Partners. These issues were real, complex and there was uncertainty about the solution. These issues would force the students to tackle a problem and domain that was well outside their current set of responsibilities and work.

The students were placed in teams with each team being assigned one of the following problems:

Patient Interaction. One of the primary ways patients interact with Partners hospitals is via the telephone. Patients request appointments, ask questions about bills, find doctors and ask directions. What telecommunications technologies and services — voice mail systems, interactive voice response — could be applied to transform the patient experience?

Regional Data Exchange. Massachusetts is in the early stages of developing a regional clinical data exchange (MASHARE). MASHARE is confronting significant technical, financial, operational and privacy challenges. Students were to develop an 18-month plan to create and manage this exchange such that it becomes sustainable.

Population Management. In addition to the care they provide to individual patients, Partners physicians are responsible for the overall quality of care and outcomes for populations of chronically ill patients. What kind of technology solutions could students imagine that would help Partners physicians manage these populations? How might Partners target specific patients in the population and raise the overall health of these important populations?

IT as a Commodity. In 2003, Nicholas Carr wrote the controversial article "IT Doesn't Matter." In that article he asserted that infrastructure technologies would be ubiquitous as their availability increases and their cost decreases — as they become commodities. Could Partners offer subscribers up to 1 GB of e-mail storage for free? How could the organization make network connectivity free? Does Partners have too much tied up in the non-differentiating levels of platforms?

Guided by their mentors, the teams were asked to develop an approach to address these business challenges. This required the teams to interview internal stakeholders and outside experts, review the literature, and conduct site visits.

Based on the data gathered, the teams were asked to prepare a presentation outlining their findings and defending their recommendations.

Experience trips

The experience trips were intended to expose the students to settings and groups that were engaged in innovation as a core activity. Trips include visits to:

The Massachusetts General Hospital Operating Room of the Future (ORF). The ORF is an operating room where new technologies and improvements in surgery are designed and evaluated. For example, the ORF could be used to determine if room design changes and the use of RFID greatly enhance operating room throughput. It was Founded in 1994, is an online global careers network. with sites in 23 countries. The visit to was focused on their innovation lab.


The program participants held informal group discussions with members of the Partners leadership team and selected external leaders. The discussants included a trustee, the Partners CEO, the chief nursing officer for the Massachusetts GeneralHospital, the CEO for the Partners network of community physicians, the Partners chief financial officer, the director of the entrepreneur program at Simmons School of Management, the head of the MIT AgeLab, and the CEO of a Partners community hospital.

The invited speakers discussed their experiences with fostering innovation, their assessment of the challenges facing Partners, the state of the healthcare or information technology industries and their career.

Evaluation of the program

Student Assessment. The inaugural class of the program graduated in May 2006. The student's assessment of the program was very positive. Their feedback noted that the program had:

· Exposed them to a wide range of issues and challenges facing healthcare and Partners, leading to a better understanding of the context for their work. Most of the staff had never had this exposure.

· Forced them to grapple with challenges and problems for which the answers are ambiguous and perhaps unknowable. For many of the staff, their work results in tangible outcomes, e.g., applications that work or servers that are installed. Tackling problems for which the outcome may be fuzzy or not currently identifiable required them to think differently.

· Required that they work with team members from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the IS organization. Many of the staff had never been part of teams that had such diversity.

· Inspired them. The speakers were all very accomplished and passionate about their work. While the speakers were respectful of the challenges faced by Partners and the industry, they also exhibited confidence that these challenges would be effectively addressed.

All of the participants would recommend the program to their colleagues. Most of the students wanted to stay involved in their business challenge and continue to contribute to efforts to address that challenge.

Mentor Evaluation

Impact. It is too soon to tell if the program has had a lasting impact on the level of innovation by the students. The Program Steering Committee will follow up with students and their managers in six months and 12 months to assess the effect, but the impact may be broader than any changes in the level of innovation.

Exposure to the leadership and the pursuit of a complex business challenge changed the students. For some students, the experience will cause them to reassess their career plans. This may lead to a desire to become a CIO or to pursue a career in a different area of healthcare IT.

Employee Retention. The student enthusiasm for the program and the desire to remain close to subsequent offerings of the program illustrate its appeal. We believe that the interest in the subsequent offerings will be strong and the program will be regarded as a "perk" and recognition of superior work performance.

Internal Consulting. The quality of the business challenge analyses and recommendations were exceptional. Many of the recommendations will be further assessed and implemented. The team efforts illustrate an opportunity for Partners IS to identify existing challenges, assemble a multi-disciplinary team of IS staff and ask them to develop recommendations. These staff need not have expertise in the challenge area. Nonetheless, bright and hard-working staff that bring fresh eyes to a challenge offer the promise of terrific analyses results and can provide a form of superior internal consulting talent.

Scalability. The cost of the Innovation Program is low. Pro bono contributions of time were given by the students, mentors and speakers. While Partners will offer two program sessions each year (32 students overall), a similar program could be offered in any size organization. The low costs and the ability to control the number of students that participate annually enables other organizations to pursue similar offerings.

Increasing the level of innovation in an IS group is a complex exercise. There are steps that can be taken to implement innovative techniques and processes. And there are steps, as described in this article, which can be taken to expand the horizons of staff through exposure to leadership discussions, visits to innovative organizations and the pursuit of a complex business challenge.

John Glaser, Ph.D., is vice president and CIO at Partners HealthCare in Boston, where Mary Finlay is deputy CIO. Cindy Bero is CIO and Steve Flammini CTO at Partners Community Health Care.

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